Ask Patricia O'Brien, 36, about her college years and she readily admits to having had an addiction. Her habit? Tetris, the puzzle-like computer game that resided on countless hard drives during the 1990s. "I could play for seven or eight hours straight," says O'Brien, now an advertising sales manager in Chicago. "It was addictive [and] very satisfying while I was playing. But by the end, I felt like I had a hangover." Lately, she's had a relapse: Diner Dash, a "casual videogame" in which players must serve grumpy diner patrons.
O'Brien, the mother of 6-year-old twins, may not fit most people's stereotype of a serious gamer, but she's not the only one hooked on casual videogames. In recent years downloads on sites like Yahoo! Games and pogo.com have become a furtive pastime among bored office workers, insomniac moms and chronic procrastinators. Like the Froggers and Ms. Pac-Mans of yesteryear, games like Bejeweled and Mystery Case Files take little skill to learn but are challenging enough to keep players fixated on their screens. Such games are in contrast to "hard-core" titles that have darker storylines, are more complicated to play and are favored by Xbox and PS3 devotees.
The hard-core crowd still dominates the videogame industry, which generates $16 billion in the United States alone. In contrast, 145 million casual gamers will spend $690 million this year. Casual gamers average 5.1 hours of gameplay each week, up 28 percent from the year before, says the research firm Interpret.
Casual-gaming developers and Web sites, however, have yet to fully capitalize on their increasingly dedicated fan base. The industry is struggling to "find better ways to monetize its audience," writes James Kuai, a research analyst at Parks Associates. Of particular interest: the armies of women 25 to 45 who play the majority of the games. According to the Casual Games Association, this global market could potentially generate $1.5 billion in revenue.
Ironically, the industry can't rely on sales to generate that kind of cash. The majority of players—legions of loyal but budget-conscious moms like O'Brien—don't pay to play. Instead they rely on no-charge Web sites or download their favorite titles free of charge.
That's forcing gaming companies and game portals to look increasingly to online advertising and other, more novel ways for revenue. They reason that moms like O'Brien are just the kind of demographic advertisers want to reach. According to Interpret, casual gamers buy more online than the rest of the population, are 22 percent more likely to research product information, and more than 35 percent are more likely to change brands. With casual gamers, the Avises of the world have a valuable shot at grabbing market share from the Hertzes.
Some in the industry are taking the advertiser relationship a step further. "People love to download the games for free, but when they're asked to pay $20 [after their trial period ends], a lot of times there is only a 1 percent conversion rate," says Jonathan Murray, chief executive of Lift Media, an ad network. To get gamers to pay up, Murray's company has had sites like wildgames.com issue free virtual game tokens when the customer signs up with a Lift Media advertiser. "A lot of users feel that these games should be for free," Murray says. "So we're saying, sign up with one of our advertisers that you're interested in, and it will be. We're giving value back to the customer, and it works."
So far, O'Brien has neither purchased a casual game nor signed up for special offers to prolong access to her beloved Diner Dash. But she doesn't rule it out. "I'm getting better and I don't want to lose these skills," she says. She's not entirely joking. After all, if time is money, she's already invested a small fortune.